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Wired for Empathy: How and Why Stories Cultivate Emotions

(Image from hedgerleywood.org )


Feeling the pain of another person, also known as empathy, is vital to the successful functioning of a society and community.  Without this ability, we would be significantly less likely to take actions to help others.   

Emotions are important because they motivate us. Knowing that something is important is helpful, but it can’t compare to feeling that same knowledge. With empathy, for example, we not only notice that a child is thirsty and viscerally feel their suffering, but have a strong desire to give them water. 

Stories are empathy workhorses - they transport us to generate empathy, they can motivate us to help others, and they help us learn about other cultures. 


Reading high- (but not low-) quality fiction may translate to real-world empathy and theory of mind abilities, according to a study recently described in The Guardian. This is because high-quality literature creates characters with depth and ambiguity requiring the reader to try to "understand the minds of others". 

Specifically, this study found that participants who read “literary fiction” were better able to “detect and understand other people’s emotions” than those who were given entertainment fiction to read.

But storytelling does not automatically generate empathy, according to researchers in Amsterdam. For the milk of human kindness to really get flowing, readers must be transported. Transportation is the magic that happens when a story has your full mental and emotional attention.


The ability of stories to create empathy is especially highlighted through a couple of research studies from the 1960s and ‘70s

  • In one, researchers found that white children who heard a story featuring a black protagonist/child had improved attitudes toward black children. 
  • In another study, researchers found that second-grade students who read stories featuring black and other racial minority children were more likely to include black children in their own social group and reported more positive views of black people, than children who read stories with white main characters.


In today’s world psychologists are now using fiction to see if it can generate shifts in racial stereotypes, according to an article written by Dr. Jaless Rehman for the Huffington Post

The study, “Changing Race Boundary Perception by Reading Narrative Fiction,” used literature to measure shifts in racial stereotyping. The results backed up the power of fiction to break down bias. Through their experiments, the researchers concluded that high-quality storytelling provides a way to humanize out-groups and cultures. They note: “there is growing evidence that reading a story engages many of the same neural networks involved in empathy.”

One of the clearest examples of the ability of stories to evoke empathetic responding involves an experiment developed by a researcher named Paul Zak, with the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont University in California.


Dr. Zak and his colleagues are interested in why stories are powerful. They designed an experiment using a story specifically designed to evoke empathy.  They studied how participants responded to a video of the story, and then connected this to what creates a powerful story, and more particularly, what motivates giving to charity. 

They found that half of the participants who watch the video donate the money they earned for their participation in the experiment to a childhood cancer charity.  This highlights an important concept in storytelling: it is not so much the “realness” of the story that matters in eliciting empathy, as it is the structure. 

What separated those who gave money from those who didn’t? Two very basic things had to happen:

  • First, those who did give had paid attention to the video
    • To capture attention, the story must have a dramatic arc that slowly builds the tension in the story. This allows the audience to become absorbed into the story where they feel what the characters are feeling and can generate empathy. 
  • Then, related to the attention piece, the givers’ brains synthesized the “love” chemical oxytocin.
    • Oxytocin is the hormone that facilitates transportation into the story. That is, compelling character-driven stories capture our attention and facilitate its release, enabling us to inhabit new worlds of the author’s invention. This is the same hormone that makes people more compassionate, charitable, generous and trustworthy. 

Adapted from Perry Firth's "Wired for Empathy: How and Why Stories Cultivate Emotions" (Firesteel.com, July 23, 2015).